Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sunday Night SF at Delaware Libertarian: Incident at Gliese 581C (part two)

You can find Part One here.

Incident at Gliese 581c

An Original Science Fiction story by

Steven H. Newton

(c) 2008; all rights reserved

Part Two of Three

Meanwhile, all was not well in the Kingdom of Rothmann.

Planetary studies had been productive. Gliese 581C, named Udry after its primary discoverer, not only had liquid water, but appeared to be a virtual water world. Its sun-facing hemisphere baked in the primarily infrared radiation of its star, maintaining an average temperature of 83 degrees Celsius, not quite boiling, though definitely too hot for comfort. Even so, this placed the world ocean well within the temperature range in which hyperthermophiles like Methanopyrus organisms thrived on hot-fluid undersea chimneys back on Earth.

Udry’s dark side hovered just below freezing, while that hemisphere’s albedo suggested that the crust of ice on the dark side was extremely dirty. Should the planet turn out to have an active internal heating mechanism, the possibility of a submerged liquid ocean teeming with bacterial life—ala Europa—appeared probable.

Interest naturally centered on the “Goldilocks’ band” between Udry’s dark and sunlit sides, where a thermally direct longitudinal weather cell created enough heat exchange to manifest a mean temperature of 35 degrees C. Not too hot, not too cold—although covered with fast-moving clouds—this area possessed the only significant island that radar mapping detected. Penstock estimated it at half the size of Australia; he wanted to name it “Hoobart’s Wart.”

Initially, Rothmann gloried in his status as arbiter of key mission decisions. He listened knowingly as the scientists made their cases for conflicting priorities and issued Solomon-like judgments about telescope time or the order of equipment deployment. Yet as the novelty of actually being in charge wore off, the physicist became increasingly short-tempered, even disinterested. Within two weeks, when researchers attempted to communicate their growing excitement to Rothmann, his responses sent them away bewildered and angry. To an exuberant Slattery with the first thermal images implying the existence of something resembling algae in Udry’s twilight waters, he growled, “Finding bacteria floating in some exo-planet’s slime hardly represents a great human accomplishment. Meaningful life has to be something we can talk to, steal from, or eat. When you’ve found that, come back and see me.”

The first rebukes everyone tried to write off against Rothmann’s obviously stunted emotional development. Even Chien defended him as concentrating too intensely on the satellite question to waste time worrying about technical studies. Yet the physicist also met questions about his own research with discourteous evasion. People began drifting back into seemingly idle conversations with Leath, wondering if he knew what Rothmann had found or ruled out, expressing the certainty that surely the captain had not been kept in the dark as well.

Leath replied truthfully that, whatever else he was doing, Rothmann was not confiding in him.

Leath recognized the problem. People undertaking decades-long interstellar voyages had to be prepared to face not only their own potential deaths, but also the aging or perishing of everyone they had known, and an Earth so changed technologically, culturally, and politically that they might become refugees from the past. Leath and Boone understood the implications of that better than anyone else on board: both had made the Slingshot Mission under Jolly and the Eridani Probe under Heynan before signing up for the Gliese expedition. Physiologically, Kirk Leath was about forty-six years old, though he had been born ninety years ago. Between the last two missions he never even bothered grounding.

In at least three of Rothmann’s four scenarios, however, it was conceivable that Earth itself no longer existed for them in any meaningful sense. They had been left adrift in a cosmos that was not only unfriendly and uncaring, but a cosmos that apparently refused to play by any predictable rules. This sense of futility might have passed rather than evolving toward full-blown depression had Rothmann given the crewmembers the slightest hope to which they could cling. Being Rothmann, he didn’t even realize such a need existed.

Then the Surface Exploration Module found another chronological artifact. The SEM deployed seven FrzB imaging disks with a 700-kilometer cruising range, a NanoDust swarm, and three Loper mobile exploratory platforms. When a FrzB spotted what appeared to be a rectilinear, metallic object 125 kilometers from the SEM touch-down site on the Wart, tele-operator Gevin Ailes received the assignment to trot Loper 2 (“Buzzy”) out to investigate.

At Buzzy’s rapid-reconnaissance speed the trip consumed sixteen travel hours; Ailes’ rest breaks added an additional six hours. The terrain Buzzy crossed consisted mostly of heavily weather-beaten rock, laced with erosive gullies capable of flash flooding in less than an hour as 240 kph winds whipped storms across the island. Ailes drove almost entirely by radar imaging, as the clouds effectively cut off what little visible light Gliese 581 offered in the twilight band, and Buzzy’s six-million candle-power headlamp illuminated only rain and wind-whipped rock debris without providing any useful details about the ground ahead.

Leath made a point to be in the control suite when Ailes made final approach, although carefully positioned in the background. There were nine other people there, crowded around the screen slaved to Buzzy’s sensor array with an almost desperate intensity. Ailes, who had been suffering from headaches brought on by continuous operation for the past seven hours, irritably demanded silence as he guided the Loper across the last ridge separating him from his target.
Mud and small rocks had accumulated around it, but within a few minutes everyone realized what Slattery said in a breathy, disbelieving whisper, “It’s a Loper, another damn Loper.”

As with the comsat there were critical differences between the deactivated, deteriorating machine and Buzzy, the most immediately obvious being dual headlamps and an additional grappling arm. While Buzzy lacked the tools necessary to pry open a dust-encrusted access plate as Boone had done for the satellite, the inference was clear: this was not only a Loper, but an improved model of more recent vintage than the Zheng He’s own.

“Get Rothmann,” somebody demanded. “He’s got to see this.”

Slattery said bitterly, “Why bother? He’s only going to tell us that we should have expected it. If there’s a comsat, there must have been an expedition. If there was an expedition with equipment similar to our own, we should have figured we’d find the remnants of their ground package.”

Penstock said, “If somebody’s already been here and deployed a ground package, then somewhere around the Wart there’s got to be what’s left of the lander.”

“So what?” demanded Malvoux.

Leath waited, wondering if anyone else would puzzle it out.

Eventually, as if chewing over the words individually, Penstock said, “Our lander is covered with our expedition logo and the ship’s identification numbers. We find that….”

It took three more days before Hannah Leichtmun’s Freddy sauntered up to the crumpled body of a SEM lander, half-buried under a rockslide. Ailes had to vector in Buzzy, because the debris was so thick that it required the coordinated efforts of two Lopers to clear. Nonetheless, Freddy’s and Buzzy’s efforts were rewarded when they lifted the last boulder off of the lander’s dented side panel to reveal the image of a smoldering red star surrounded by three planets above the words:


“I’ll be damned,” Chien said. “They’ve already been here and headed home, but they haven’t even launched yet. This is something Rothmann’s got to be interested in seeing.”

Despite the general, satisfied noises of agreement, Leath had his doubts.

* * *

The captain was sipping what he liked to refer to as “retroactively gourmet reconstituted” tomato soup when his door chimed. Most people had little idea what to do with their four-kilo weight allowance; Leath carried freeze-dried spices, seasonings, fruits, vegetables, chilies, and even anchovies. He had learned while circling Alpha Centauri that if he had to live on only the blandly nutritious fare stocked by Exploration Command he would eventually stop eating out of pure disinterest. So he was rarely surprised when a visitor stopped short with nostrils flaring at the aromas coming from his tray.

But his visitor had never before been Hoobart Rothmann.

The physicist paused, took a deep breath, then forced himself to concentrate on what had brought him forth from his own domain, which he rarely left for any other reason than mandatory exercise periods.

“Captain, you must get these people back into some semblance of order. They are constantly bothering me with the most trivial details, demanding that I make simple decisions for them, and breaking down into emotional outbursts. It has become impossible for me to make any progress with my own work.”

Leath used a chunk of breadcracker that he had soaked in oil and garlic to wipe the remnants of his soup from the special bowl, popped it in his mouth and chewed slowly, considering. He swallowed, took a drink of ginger-infused hot tea, managing to appear contemplative rather than rude. When he was finished, he dabbed his lips with a napkin before speaking.

“I haven’t actually taken the time to check your logs recently,” he said, referring to the work schedules that all the scientists were supposed to keep posted on the ship net. Rothmann, of course, never deigned to provide his. “I presume you’re still trying to derive the first transposition to the third Transform?”

Rothmann’s last publication pre-print before launch had posited a new strategy for solving the Takai Transforms, inverting the traditional order of approach and substituting Benvenides’ time expansion variable for the standard renormalized time value most researchers applied to the first and third Transforms. The problem, Rothmann had admitted in that paper, was that while such an approach represented a possible resolution, it also promised to be hideously time-consuming, even with the best quantum-organic computers. “Eighty years of dedicated mainframe calculation will be necessary if we must employ brute-force computation,” he had written.

Taken aback by the captain’s detailed knowledge of his strategy, Rothmann said, “No, I’ve got that part licked. I’m currently working on the second transposition to the first Transform.”

“I imagine,” Leath offered, “that it’s difficult to explain to the others why you’re not attempting to figure out which of your proposed phenomena accounts for our various chronological anomalies.”

Rothmann made a dismissive motion, and then said, “I’ve tried explaining that we lack even the most rudimentary equipment for the detailed sub-atomic measurements necessary to begin serious hypothesizing. Once we determined that there is apparently no other vessel in our vicinity, the only practical way to discover what’s happened is to head home as scheduled and deal with what we find upon our arrival. Why can’t they understand that it really doesn’t matter in terms of what we do now?”

His tone, Leath thought, was surprisingly plaintive.

“Perhaps you’ve underestimated the stress created by the possibility that the Earth they left behind simply isn’t there any more.”

Genuinely puzzled by this response, Rothmann said, “They’ve always known that conditions on their return will be dramatically different than anything they might have expected. After all, more than forty years would have passed. Now the situation has just become more uncertain in terms of the amount of time that may have elapsed. It’s even possible that we might return to find only ten years gone, which should certainly make most of them happy. Families and loved ones and all that will still be alive.”

Leath began repacking his culinary drawer. He said, “I have a grand nephew named Elliot, who had just been born when we launched. I was prepared to meet him next as a middle-aged man, but you’re suggesting that I could find him as anything from a ten-year-old boy to a drooling, senile old man in a grav chair. The uncertainty is a bit unnerving, but I don’t think that’s what everybody is worried about.”

“What then?” Rothmann demanded.

“How can I ever be sure, given your theories, that the Elliot I encounter back on Earth—no matter what his age—is actually the same person I left behind, and not some duplicate from an alternate reality? That’s at the heart of what’s bothering them.”

The physicist snorted in disgust. “That, Captain, is idiotic. Realized macro-quantum theory settled the point years ago. You can’t even be sure that the next time you see me that either of us will be the unbroken extension of the two of us having this conversation. That sort of Newtionian consistency is a sensory illusion and a philosophic delusion of the uneducated. I thought better of the intellects of the crews selected for interstellar missions.”

“I can see your point,” Leath said. “If you wish, I can speak to the more distraught members of the crew, although I’m not sure how effective I’ll be. I do know that Doc Furmun carries a full stock of tranquilizers and anti-anxiety medications. Some of them might benefit from that as well. I will make every attempt to keep anyone from derailing the progress you’ve made, Professor.”

“I would be very appreciative, Captain,” Rothmann said stiffly, and began to turn toward the door.

“Professor?” Leath’s tone was inquisitive, almost abstracted. “I wonder if you might satisfy a small curiosity of my own, before you go.”


“You’re not really interested in Udry or the Gliese system, nor does your work seem to require such, ah, distance from your colleagues. I have never been able to figure you why you felt it necessary to travel twenty-one light years from home.”

“Ah, well, that,” Rothmann stuttered. “Frankly, I did want the break from all the notoriety, and a chance to really focus myself in the isolation. I’m also hoping that when we return there will have been sufficient advances in processing speed and power to complete my work on the Transforms. This satellite business has been an unfortunate distraction. I should never have allowed myself to become so involved in something so irrelevant to my own interests.”

To this the captain nodded, but made no other reply.

* * *

Phineen Slattery committed suicide by slashing his wrists and watching the blood float around his cabin in viscous globules until he lost consciousness. He left a note that read, “If the world is gone, that sucks. If Deanna is gone, there’s no point.”

Leath accessed the personnel records to determine that Deanna Slattery, Phineen’s wife, had officially been listed as deceased on the exo-biologist’s application to the Gliese mission. Strangely enough, however, her death was recorded as being six months and two days after the date on the application.

The captain pondered this improbability for nearly an hour, then commed Lieutenant Detroit. “Find out for me, please, who qualified as Slattery’s closest friend onboard,” he said.

The answer came back several hours later: Gevin Ailes.

Leath invited the Loper operator to dinner. His culinary cabinet turned flash-frozen pseudo-beef into a marinated roast covered with a corn-and-sun-dried tomato salsa, complemented by a breadcracker pudding covered with a hard plum-raisin sauce. Ailes ate well, displaying only mild concern over Slattery’s death. For a while Leath wondered if Detroit had gotten her information wrong.

Nonetheless, he asked his question: “What happened to Slattery’s wife?”

Ailes grinned crookedly, then shook his head.

“You know, Captain,” he said. “Someone always figures he’s smarter than the game. Phineen was like that. He was hot to get out system, but he knew he had two strikes against him. First, he was only a very good biologist, not a great one. So for him to go anywhere it was going to have to be a second-rate mission like this one. Ah, no offense, I mean.”

“It’s almost impossible to offend me,” Leath said. “I know I’m not Abner Jolly and that this isn’t Alpha Centauri.”

Ailes toyed with his pudding. “Guess there’s no harm in the telling, now that is. Not like you could have done anything about it once we were here, even if you’d known.”

Leath was good at waiting.

“You see, Captain, Deanna Slattery’s not dead. Well, at least she’s not dead if Earth’s back where and when it’s supposed to be. Slattery needed this mission, and he knew the Prohibitions as well. So the two of them took every cert and cred they could muster, bought her into Coldsleep for forty-three years. Got her declared legally dead, like you have to do for cancer patients who go the same route. So Slattery thinks he’ll get back just in time to get her out of the tank, and with the salary they banked while he was gone they live happily ever after.”

“I’ve never heard of a plan like that,” Leath said, handing Ailes a globelet of hot tea.

The Loper operator shrugged.

Leath continued: “Only two things to go wrong. Slattery dies on the mission or his wife dies in Coldsleep.”

“He told me they talked that all through. Said they decided the risk was worth the game, that if he went off to study bugs in the Indo Caliphate for a couple of years either one of them might die, too. I guess he just didn’t figure on the whole idea that the whole damn Earth might be … sort of gone, even if it was still there.”

“How do you feel about that prospect, Mr. Ailes?”

Leath’s tone was carefully neutral.

“Honestly, Captain, I had a couple of difficult nights with the idea at first. Then I started wondering why, out of a dozen voyages that have gone out and come back we’ve never run across this kind of thing before. I know you went on the Slingshot yourself, and somewhere else besides. You’re here, and Boone is here, and the damned satellite is here. So I figure somehow it all has to work out.” He paused, rubbed his chin, and then continued, “Although I can’t say everyone sees it my way.”

“Perhaps.” Leath said, “I should find out.”

* * *

Eleas Furmun, the Zheng He’s physician, a small man with a pointed chin, deep-set grey eyes, and one shoulder significantly higher than the other, appeared quite harried when Leath visited sickbay.

“Nearly half the people onboard have reported serious sleep disturbances,” he said. “I’m treating most of them with Somnola, but frankly, Captain, with nearly six months remaining before we begin Coldsleep protocols, I’m not stocked to keep so many people on a maintenance dose for that long.”

“What about more severe symptoms, Doctor? Is anyone heading in Slattery’s direction?”

Furmun shook his head wearily. “Captain, I didn’t even suspect that Slattery was headed there.”

“Should we be, ah, interviewing people? Or taking some other steps?”

The doctor thought about this idea for a few seconds. When Leath arrived, Furmun had been inventorying stocks of Coldsleep meds, per the Captain’s earlier orders. Now he re-attached his stat-pad to the bulkhead wall, rubbed his hands together, then spread them in a gesture of helplessness.

“I doubt it would do any good, Captain. I’m no psychologist, and the best software we’ve got on the mainframe is the old DSM 29.5 Interactive Depression Survey. I read the faq; it’s designed for chronic depression only. Says right in the instructions not to use it for situational issues, and this whole satellite business is the perfect example of situationally induced depression.”

“What about patterns? Anything specific in groupings of people who have or haven’t been experiencing problems with insomnia?

Furman showed him the list. It was immediately apparent to Leath that none of the crew except Hannah Leichtmun suffered from the problem, and she was one of only two members who had never been out-system before. On the other hand, nearly all the scientists had difficulty sleeping.

Except Hoobart Rothmann.

Leath kept these observations to himself. He asked the doctor two more questions.

“Would placing someone in Coldsleep early be a practical solution if a potentially suicidal situation turns up?”

“I doubt it, unless we paired the protocol injections with a heavy dose of tranquilizers. The injections only impair memory after the subject is revived. But I suppose it would reduce the duration that we’d have to keep someone medicated.”

“There’s no downside, medically speaking, for someone chilled longer than anticipated?”

Furmun snorted. “Not a bit, Captain. When you’re chilled, you’re chilled. The nutrient slow-drips in your tank are good two hundred, maybe three hundred years, and that seems to be the only limiting factor. When Royzz first developed the process, he put twenty-five Rhesus monkeys under the same day. One gets decanted every ten years. They’d already successfully revived fifteen of them by the time we launched. Coldsleep is old, dependable technology.”

Leath, who had been chilled and decanted six times thus far in his career, contemplated the three years of memories he’d lost in the process and wondered.

End of Part Two

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